The Magazine

Punishing Allies . . .

The view of Obama from Central Europe.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The Obama administration has hit more than a few reset buttons since taking office. In the case of the Islamic world, resetting has meant respectful outreach exemplified in Obama's Cairo speech. With China, resetting means minimizing the American hectoring on human rights and conspicuous displays of antagonism toward Beijing such as a meeting for the Dalai Lama with the American president. The effort to reset Israel-Palestine, now itself reset, entailed early pressure on Israel to halt all settlement construction in the West Bank. In Iran, the reset was an offer of carrots--up to normalization of relations in exchange for an end to Iran's ambition to acquire a nuclear weapon. And, of course, the biggest reset of all has been with Russia, where the administration has sought to de-ideologize relations for the sake of arms-control agreements and future help with Iran.

To be fair, it's too soon to say what will come of all this resetting. A successor agreement on nukes with Russia seems very achievable; a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process much less so. Perhaps the most generous way to understand the new administration's initiatives is as a series of medium- to long-term bets. At least potentially, the payoffs are high: A China continuing its "peaceful rise" is in everyone's interest. A Russia committed to a nonnuclear Iran might go a long way toward slowing that country's secretive weapons program.

Clearly, the administration as a whole sees merit in trying approaches very different from the ones associated with George W. Bush. But the question is how much of the world's trouble was Bush's fault. If our Iran problem has more to do with Iran than with Bush administration policy toward Iran, our Russia difficulties more to do with Russia than with Bush's Russia policy--and likewise with the Middle East, Asia, the Islamic world writ large, and elsewhere--then there is not much reason to be very optimistic about the prospects of an un-Bush reset. The payoffs may be high, but the odds are long.

And the potential collateral damage is not negligible. Already, the left-leaning side of the human rights community is beginning to express dismay over an administration that seems reluctant to speak out against repression when its words might get in the way of all the resetting. The examples are many, from Iran's violent crackdown on street demonstrations protesting electoral fraud last summer to China and Burma. The administration's decisions to close Guantánamo and to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the U.S. criminal justice system won plaudits from the left, but it's a bit much to act as if the biggest human rights issue in the world today is whether the U.S. government seeks the death penalty for KSM in a criminal court or before a military commission.

Not the least of the collateral damage has been to traditional U.S. allies. The September decision to cancel the missile defense system planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic and staunchly opposed by Russia is a case in point. The one thing the planned system had the least to do with was its stated purpose of stopping long-range missiles fired by Iran at Europe. No one took such a contingency as anything but a remote threat. In fact, recently revised U.S. assessments of Iranian priorities showed greater emphasis on development of short and medium-range missiles, providing the Obama administration the rationale for scuttling the interceptors in Poland and the radar in the Czech Republic.

For the Poles and the Czechs, though, the proposed deployment was something more, a conspicuous indication of U.S. commitment under the auspices of NATO to the territorial defense of Central and Eastern Europe. Suspicions about Russian intentions with regard to both the "near abroad" of former Soviet territory and the territory of the former Warsaw Pact have long been present there. And they have heightened considerably since Russian tanks rolled into Georgia in August 2008--ostensibly to defend ethnic Russians in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but clearly a display of raw clout staking a claim to a sphere of influence outside Russian borders.

For Russia, the missile defense system was a threat. True, perhaps not to its nuclear arsenal (though the Russians liked to claim the system was a precursor to an ABM capability directed against them)--but certainly to Russia's desire for deference. Moscow had long opposed NATO enlargement. But its opposition was largely ineffectual until Georgia was denied the Membership Action Plan the Bush administration was pushing for at a summit in April 2008.